On July 1, the US government filed a motion arguing that the only suspect charged with participating in the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya should be held in pretrial detention. The motion was subsequently granted.
The court document provides specific allegations concerning the role that the jailed suspect, Ahmed Abu Khatallah, played in the events of that night.
Although US officials had been quick to portray the attack in Benghazi as part of a reaction to an anti-Islam video, US prosecutors now say that Khatallah’s “participation … was motivated by his extremist ideology.”
And “days before” the attack, Khatallah “voiced concern and opposition to the presence of an American facility in Benghazi.” Khatallah has also allegedly “continued to make efforts to target American personnel and property since the” attack in Benghazi and he has “discussed with others his deadly and destructive intentions.”
According to US prosecutors, Khatallah “was a commander of Obaidah Ibn Al Jarrah, an extremist brigade that was absorbed into” Ansar Al Sharia (AAS) “after the recent Libya revolution.” The government describes AAS as “an Islamic extremist militia in Libya that holds anti-Western views and advocates the establishment of Sharia law in Libya.” Khatallah became a “senior leader” of AAS after his brigade merged with the organization.
Several members of AAS in Benghazi have been identified as being among the group that initially breached the gate at the US Mission on the night of Sept. 11, 2012. These fighters include Khatallah’s “known associates.”
Beyond the allegations of Khatallah’s role in the attack, the government’s filing includes several other reported details that may point to his ties to the broader terror network. The court filing provides little insight into Khatallah’s relationships with other jihadists, however.
‘Extensive contacts with senior-level members of extremist groups throughout Libya’
One reason the US government recommended that Khatallah be detained is because he could “communicate his plans for additional deadly attacks to other extremists and encourage them to carry out those plans.”
The government alleges that Khatallah “has extensive contacts with senior-level members of extremist groups throughout Libya.” Members of these organizations, as well as Khatallah’s “close associates who participated in” the Benghazi attack, “are similarly dedicated to carrying out plots to attack American and Western interests.”
Although Khatallah’s contacts in other extremist groups are not identified in the legal filing, intelligence and evidence compiled by American authorities indicate that Khatallah’s men were among fighters from several jihadist groups that participated in the assault on the US Mission.
The US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence identified the groups responsible for the Benghazi attack in a report released on Jan. 15. “Individuals affiliated with terrorist groups, including AQIM, Ansar al Sharia, AQAP, and the Mohammad Jamal Network, participated in the September 11, 2012, attacks,” the report reads.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are both official branches of al Qaeda and have sworn allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s emir. The head of AQAP, Nasir al Wuhayshi, was also appointed the general manager of al Qaeda’s network in August 2013.
In October 2013, both the UN and the US designated the Mohammad Jamal Network (MJN) as a terrorist organization. The designations explicitly recognized the MJN’s ties to al Qaeda’s senior leadership, including Ayman al Zawahiri, as well as to AQIM and AQAP.
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report also cited intelligence showing that AQAP, AQIM, and the Mohammad Jamal Network all established training camps in eastern Libya after the rebellion against Muammar el Qaddafi began in 2011.
In a terrorist designation released on Jan. 10, the State Department indicated that fighters from Ansar al Sharia chapters in both Derna and Benghazi took part in the attack. Ansar al Sharia in Derna is led by a former Guantanamo detainee named Sufian Ben Qumu. During his time in US custody, intelligence officials identified Ben Qumu as an al Qaeda operative.
Thus, when Khatallah and his men allegedly took part in the Benghazi raid, they were accompanied by fighters from at least four different terrorist organizations with known al Qaeda ties: AQAP, AQIM, the MJN, and Ansar al Sharia in Derna.
The US government reiterates in its legal filing that Khatallah has “significant relationships with active leaders and members of extremist groups in Libya, including AAS, who are similarly bent on harming American personnel and property.”
Alleged retaliation plans after capture of senior al Qaeda operative
In late 2013, US prosecutors say, Khatallah “expressed anger that the US conducted a capture operation of a Libyan fugitive in Tripoli” and he “took steps to retaliate against the US by targeting US interests in the region.”
The “Libyan fugitive” isn’t named, but the term surely refers to a senior al Qaeda operative known as Abu Anas al Libi.
At the time of his capture in October 2013, al Libi had been wanted by the US for well over a decade. Al Libi is accused of helping al Qaeda prepare for the Aug. 7, 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Witnesses during the embassy bombings trial identified al Libi as a trained al Qaeda operative who performed surveillance on the embassies and other Western targets prior to the attack. [See LWJ report, Analysis: Al Qaeda seeks to spin capture of top operative.]
An unclassified report published in August 2012 highlights al Qaeda’s strategy for building a fully operational network in Libya and offers an analysis of al Libi’s suspected role.
The report (“Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile“) was prepared by the federal research division of the Library of Congress under an agreement with the Defense Department’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office. Al Libi is identified by the report’s authors as the “builder of al Qaeda’s network in Libya.” The report concludes that Ansar al Sharia is likely a part of this network as well.
The US government’s filing in Khatallah’s case does not say that the imprisoned Benghazi suspect knew al Libi personally or that the pair conspired together. It is possible that such details, if they exist, were left out of the court papers. Based on the publicly available evidence, any conclusion would be speculative.
‘Supervised the exploitation of material from the scene’
Prosecutors allege that after US personnel fled from the Mission, Khatallah “entered the compound and supervised the exploitation from the scene by numerous men.” No further details are offered.
US intelligence officials have previously told The Long War Journal that another suspect in the Benghazi attack is thought to have brought materials recovered in the compound back to al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. That suspect, Faraj al Chalabi, served as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden during the 1990s. Al Chalabi was detained in Pakistan and Libya following the attack, but eventually freed.
It is not publicly known if Khatallah has any ties to Chalabi, and the court documents do not assert any relationship between the two.